On Oct. 2, Bill C-384, Francine Lalonde’s private member’s bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, received its first hour of debate. The bill was introduced on May 13 by the Bloc Québécois MP, in her third attempt to get such legislation passed in Parliament. Two previous attempts were scuttled when an election was called.
The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has led the battle against C-384, including a Stop Bill C-384 postcards campaign, encouraging opponents of euthanasia to send hand-written letters to MPs and meet with members of Parliament.
The first hour of debate saw eight MPs rise to speak on the issue. Two were in favour – Bloc MPs Lalonde and Serge Cardin (Sherbrooke). Six were opposed – David Anderson (C, Cypress Hills – Grasslands), John McKay (L, Scarborough – Guildwood), Jacques Gourde (C, Lotbinière – Chutes-de-la-Chaudière), Marlene Jennings (L, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce – Lachine), Joe Comartin (NDP, Windsor – Tecumseh) and Paul Szabo (L, Mississauga South).
Speaking in favour of her bill, Lalonde said C-384 “amends the Criminal Code so that a medical practitioner does not commit homicide just by helping a person to die with dignity.” Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, has argued that legalizing euthanasia is less about the rights of terminally ill patients than protecting doctors from prosecution.
Lalonde noted Quebec medical professionals support legalizing physician-assisted suicide and pointed to polls from Quebec that purport to show the public supports her bill. She also reiterated some of the supposed safeguards her bill includes, such as requiring that those who request euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide be 18 years or older, that individuals have to be experiencing “severe” physical or mental pain and that two written requests must be made at least 10 days apart expressing the wish to die.
Gourde raised issues about the lack of safeguards. “Bill C-384 is too broad in terms of its scope,” he said, noting that, “The proposed legalization of medical euthanasia and assisted suicide would not only apply to terminally ill patients, but also to persons who suffer from severe physical or mental pain without any prospect of relief.” He noted that those who were depressed could request a physician’s assistance in committing suicide.
McKay said the bill was wrong because it would lead to the “ending of a life.” Drawing comparisons to capital punishment and how the justice system makes mistakes, he wondered whether the medical profession would make errors that would lead to premature deaths. He called upon Lalonde to “respond to the inevitable; the absolute certainty that errors will be made and that, therefore, she and I and all the rest of us will bear that guilt.”
Comartin, the NDP justice critic, quoted palliative care expert Dr. Balfour Mount, who said he was opposed to euthanasia because it was unnecessary. The focus, he said, should be on palliative care, which experts in the field say is under-funded and unevenly provided across the country. Comartin estimated that just one in five terminal patients are “covered by meaningful palliative care” and that another 15 per cent have some “partial assistance.” Comartin said the issue is what “we are not doing” about palliative care, not euthanasia and assisted-suicide.
Jennings spoke against the bill by reading a letter from the Canadian Medical Association opposing C-384.
Szabo noted there are problems with informed consent and family or professional coercion, but he said the central issue is that killing is wrong: “The bill goes under the moniker of right to die with dignity, but the amendment to the Criminal Code would give a person the right to terminate a life before natural death. It would not give the right to die with dignity to someone. It would give the right of someone to take a life. That is a subtle difference.”
Anderson warned that making euthanasia legal would lead Canada to become a destination for suicide tourism. He said, “That is not in line with what we want either the heritage or the future of this country to be about.”
Cardin said he wasn’t trying to make euthanasia the “law tomorrow morning,” but was rather encouraging parliamentarians to “consider, discuss, debate and improve this bill.” Yet, he concluded, euthanasia and assisted suicide is “not up to us to choose,” but for those facing the decision to end their own life – “to have control over their life and, ideally, their death.”